Jul 14, 2022 - News

How to build on the heartland's workforce foundation

Illustration of a pair of hands laying down bricks made of hundred dollar bills. 
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the right strategies, America's heartland can capitalize on the current labor shortage to reclaim its heritage as a hub for upward mobility, a new report says.

State of play: The COVID-19 pandemic mostly "exposed" trends that were already simmering and caused the "Great Resignation," Joel Kotkin, one of the report authors, told Axios.

  • Reduced domestic manufacturing, demographic shifts and decreased labor participation have been underlying issues for decades throughout the U.S.

Yes, but: The report, by Bentonville think tank Heartland Forward, outlines how policymakers can benefit from these workforce changes.

  • Middle America's lower cost of living can mean a higher quality of life for those who don't want to be in major cities or spend money on formal degrees.

Context: Heartland Forward is focused on improving economic performance in the 20-state region in the center of the U.S.

What they found: There are three main opportunities for heartland communities outlined in the report:

Invest in specialized training: To attract investment from industries like semiconductor manufacturers and electric vehicle component makers, the report says communities that spend money to help train the workforce have an edge.

  • For example, Tennessee will spend $40 million to build a college of applied technology near a planned $5.6 billion Ford EV battery plant to help prepare a future workforce.

Build pipelines for students: There's continued demand for workers in jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but not a university degree. These jobs pay enough for financial stability and don't typically saddle people with college debt.

  • A Heartland report last year identified occupations — such as registered nurses, truck drivers, construction workers — and how states can create pathways to fill those jobs.

Tap into the growing foreign-born population: Industries across America have come to rely more on immigrants to power their workforces. Many have been settling in labor-short, low-cost cities like St. Louis, Missouri, rather than high-cost, deindustrialized states like California, researchers point out.

  • A 2021 Heartland Forward report found the overall foreign-born population that lives in the 20-state heartland region has grown from 23.5% in 2010 to 31% in 2019.

The bottom line: The heartland has a historical foundation of producing what America needs, but central states and communities must take deliberate steps to keep building on their record.

Go deeper: Read the report and an accompanying report, "Heartland Talent: Policy and Practice"

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